The Tupac Shakur Wake Me When I’m Free experience opened last weekend. My wife and I attended Saturday with the hope of reconnecting with a voice that’s been a part of our lives since the 90s. The exhibit is something every fan of Tupac Shakur needs to see. It is scheduled to run at Canvas @ L.A. Live through April.
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Hip-hop was the first genre of music that I found for myself. My parents weren’t playing it at home and when they heard it, they immediately hated it. I fell in love with it.
At first, all my music came from the radio or from listening to friends’ tapes. I remember hearing Tupac’s “I Get Around” and “Keep Ya Head Up.” Those were the biggest Tupac singles in the early 90s.
The game completely changed in 95 when Tupac hit us with “Dear Mama.” This song gave you something uncommon in hip-hop radio at that time, something deeper. He was sincere and shared intimate thoughts about his troubled youth and the security his mother provided.
As an immigrant who came to this country at eight years old with his mother, this song hit a nerve. I was 15, struggling to fit in, and enrolled in a majority white high school as part of the LAUSD bus program. This song was the most relatable to my American experience at that time.
The release of “Dear Mama” marked the first time I was interested in going beyond the recorded music. I learned as much as possible about Shakur’s background and listened to all his albums paying close attention to the lyrics.
All Eyez on Me
The first Tupac album I purchased was his Death Row debut, All Eyez on Me. The album was an instant hit featuring singles like “California Love” and “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted.” I gravitated toward more introspective songs like “Only God Can Judge Me” and “I Ain’t Mad at Cha,” or social commentaries like “Wonda Why They Call U Bitch” and “Shorty Wanna Be a Thug.”
This album was the most obvious in presenting the two people inside Tupac Shakur. The truth is he was both people at the same time. You could argue the introspective and sensitive Tupac was suppressed after everything that had occurred by the time he came to Death Row.
Tupac used the gangsta lifestyle of Death Row to shelter himself from everything that came before but the other Tupac was always there. This is why Wake Me When I’m Free is monumental.
The promoters of the event went to great lengths to keep details out of the public eye before the opening. I imagined we would see some of his poetry, check out music videos and interviews, and see some photographs previously not public. What we got exceeded my expectations and taught me a few new facts about Pac’s life.
The title of the experience comes from a poem Tupac wrote when he was 18. The poem begins, “Please wake me when I’m free. I cannot bear captivity where my culture I’m told holds no significance.”
While the lines were scribbled in 1989, the words strike hard in 2022. We’ve seen so much injustice and hatred spewed toward Black people, Latinx people, Asians, Muslims, and other People of Color over the last decade. The hate has always been there but it’s utterly scary how openly practiced, preached, and executed it is today.
The first room of the exhibit consists of sculptures or wall art representations of Tupac’s tattoos, each accompanied by the meaning behind it. The one that stands out is that of an AK-47 machine gun on his torso just above the famous “Thug Life” tattoo.
Having never researched his body art, I didn’t think that one would have a deep meaning. I could not be farther from the truth.
Above the gun, the tattoo reads “50 Niggaz.” The real meaning behind it is Black unity. As Shakur explained, if one black person from each of the 50 states joined hands with him, they would be stronger than an AK-47.
Black Panthers and Afeni Shakur
A large portion of the exhibit is dedicated to Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, who was a member of the Black Panthers and was incarcerated when she gave birth.
Afeni’s activism didn’t stop after she was released from prison. Tupac was exposed to conversations of police brutality, racism, political injustice, and the atrocities the nation committed against People of Color at an early age.
As you continue through the hall, you come to a section of his childhood and upbringing. On the wall, you see a quote from Afeni:
“In my home, a book, any book, is a sacred item… In my home, a book is more important than a light bulb.”– Afeni Shakur
The quote sits above a makeshift stoop with a street light. There were times when Afeni was unable to pay the light bill and they’d be left in the dark. Those nights, Tupac would slip outside and sit on the steps to read a book beneath the street lamp.
So Much Paper
You’ve all heard how much music Tupac recorded in his lifetime. Even now, after seven albums curated and released after his death, there are still songs stored away you may never hear. Considering everything going on around us today, a voice like Tupac’s is needed.
Along with all that recording, must come the need to write down what you are going to say on the mic. In one of the exhibit halls, you find yourself surrounded by Tupac’s writing.
The walls are lined with framed notebook pages from end to end. You’ll find poems, song lyrics, track lists, album names and concepts, plays and screenplays. You are at once overwhelmed and inspired facing so much writing coming from one person who did it all by the age of 25.
While it’s clear Tupac loved to rap and his music is filled with powerful messages, I believe he would’ve eventually set music aside in favor of movies. In The Don Killuminati: The 7-Day Theory, Shakur calls out rappers who continue past their prime. He concedes rap is a young person’s game: “Niggaz looking like Larry Holmes, flabby and sick. Tryin’ to playa-hate on my shit.”
A 30-something Tupac would have retired from rap, perhaps remaining the face of a record label focused on growing new talent, while he moved on to write, direct, and act in movies. His performance in Gridlock’d where he is teamed up with Tim Roth and Thandiwe Newton, who both went on to great accolades as actors, is fantastic.
The Wake Me When I’m Free experience includes an interview with the late great John Singleton, who wrote and directed Poetic Justice. The film famously paired Shakur with Janet Jackson. In the interview, he says Tupac would have been his De Niro. He would have called him up for every movie he would go on to make. Take a moment to imagine Shakur in Four Brothers or even the Fast & Furious franchise (Singleton directed the second film).
The Shakur Home
Toward the end of the exhibit we find a hall dedicated to the outfits Shakur wore in some of his most prominent moments. There’s a Grammy suit, the outfit from the Rolling Stone cover, and several others.
What captured my eyes were two pieces that came right from his home. One was a statue of an African female warrior in a single-leg stance, with one foot pressed against the thigh of the standing leg. Tupac often praised the female warrior spirit.
The other item was a gold Scrabble game sitting on a custom, gold-adorned cart. The perfect item for a man looking to shine through the power of words and language.
Final Words on Wake Me When I’m Free Experience
The experience concludes with Tupac’s most famous poem: The Rose That Grew From Concrete. It’s a poem I’ve read many times going back to 1999 when my wife gave me the book as a gift while we were dating. This time, after snaking through the exhibit displaying all aspects of this complex, flawed individual, the poem brought tears to my eyes.
The Wake Me When I’m Free experience puts Tupac Shakur’s passion for language, the expression of ideas, and fighting against oppression on full display, at times overwhelming the senses. It is at once exciting, somber, and inspiring. My love for Tupac’s music is stronger today because of this experience. He is and will always be the rose that grew from concrete.
“We are the roses. This is the concrete. And these are my damaged petals…– Tupac Shakur
Don’t ask me why…
Thank God… Ask me how…”